The earliest Greek cave art depicting extinct animals was discovered on Crete and is believed to be at least 11,000 years old.
Dating back to the last Ice Age, the artwork was found in Asphendou Cave located near the village of Asphendou in the province of Sfakia.
The cave is a very small rock shelter without much depth that barely fits two people and is located on a hillside at the beginning of the canyon Asphendou. A visit to the cave requires meeting the man at the village who holds the key to the door since the cave is locked.
Speaking recently to the Journal of Archaeological Science Dr Thomas Strasser of Providence College, Rhode Island said: “This is the first Paleolithic art ever found in Greece and it’s significant because it deepens the history of art there by many thousands of years, and is like an eyewitness account of Ice Age Crete.
“Archaeological and paleontological information, as well as new technologies unavailable to earlier scholars, offer evidence to confirm a Paleolithic date for the earliest carvings.”
Asphendou Cave has been known for its petroglyphs, described by Strasser as “a confusing jumble of engravings that had eluded dating”.
Greek cave art shows deer extinct more than 11,000 years ago
The confusion was caused because several layers of engraving were superimposed on one another. Initially, it was believed that the animal depictions were feral goats and possibly as late as the Bronze Age.
However, archaeologists exposed the oldest layers, now showing a species of recently identified fossil dwarf deer named Candiacervus ropalophorus, which became extinct more than 11,000 years ago.
The species has unusually long antlers with short lateral tines, and specimens found not far north of Asphendou in caves on the north coast of Crete date to between 21,500 and 11,000 years ago.
The 37 deer engravings identified at Asphendou are tiny — about 5cm long — and the engravings shallow. They represent “a Paleolithic animal herd without ground line or background”. Another Paleolithic artistic convention includes showing both antlers as though in three-quarter view, while the body is in profile, Strasser’s team report in the Journal of Archaeological Science.
“The last occurrence of the Cretan dwarf deer Candiacervus confirms the Asphendou rock carvings as the oldest figural art found in Greece,” they wrote. “Paleolithic artists represented what they knew, in this case a prevalent species which became extinct in the upper Paleolithic”.
Art such as that known widely from France and Spain, from sites such as Chauvet Cave, Lascaux and Altamira, dating from 16,000 to more than 30,000 years ago, has been found on Mediterranean islands such as Levanzo, west of Sicily, but has hitherto remained unknown in Greece.
There are hundreds of caves scattered around the Greek island of Crete—and all of them are worth a visit, either for their natural features or for the history they contain. Many of the caves are open to the public and boast an unexpected sidelight to the island’s scenery.